The Borromei Bank Research Project
Professor Jim Bolton, Queen Mary, University of London
Dr Francesco Guidi Bruscoli, Faculty of Economics, University of Florence and Senior Research Fellow, Queen Mary, University of London
In 1434, the powerful Borromei family of Milan decided to establish a bank at Bruges to handle their growing exchange and commercial business with northern Europe. The advantages of setting up a branch of that bank in London soon became apparent. The main axes of the Borromeis banking operations were Venice-London-Bruges, Genoa-London-Bruges and Barcelona (where they also had a bank)-London-Bruges. Before 1434 all their activities in Bruges and London had to be handled by agents acting for them there, notably other members of the Borromei family.
Now, in 1434-36 Filippo Borromei & co. of Bruges and Filippo Borromei & co of London were established. Both continued to trade in one form or another until at least the early 1450s, selling expensive silk cloths to their clients in London and exporting cloth, wool and tin from England, but mostly sending money to and fro across Europe, to Venice, Genoa, Florence, the papal court, Barcelona, Valencia, Montpellier, Avignon, Basel, Geneva, Middleburg, Bergen-op-Zoom, Antwerp and Cologne. Their clients were other major Italian banking companies, English, Flemish, Dutch, German and Spanish merchants, and private individuals such as a notable English commander in the French campaigns of the 1420s, Sir Thomas Rempston, who paid part of his ransom to his captor Tanguy du Chastel through Filippo Borromei & co. of London.
The Banking Ledgers
By sheer chance, two very detailed ledgers of these banks have survived, one for Bruges, for the year 1438, and one for London for the years 1436-39. They are part of the Borromeo-Arese family archive, kept in their palace on their island, Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore in north-west Italy. In November 2000 the Principessa Bona Borromeo-Arese granted specific and unique permission to Professor Bolton to use the ledgers and other allied material for research. He made a successful application to the Economic and Social Research Council for a three-year grant to fund his research (Award R000239125), and on 1 July 2001 the Borromei Bank Research Project came into official being. In January 2002 Dr Francesco Guidi Bruscoli joined Professor Bolton as his Research Assistant, and together they have begun work on the ledgers.
As both are kept in double entry bookkeeping, developed by the Italians in the late thirteenth century, and still in use today, and use money of account based on old pre-decimal pounds, shillings and pence, it has been possible to develop computer software which can create electronic versions of these ledgers. The software has been written for the Project by Roundhouse Software of Winchester, Hants., who have had to learn to cope with duodecimal currencies like the Pound Sterling, the Pound Flemish, the Florentine and Rhenish florins and the Venetian ducat. So far over 900 clients holding accounts with both banks have been identified, ranging from Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici to the innkeeper of the Pelican at Antwerp.
Progress to date
The details from all the entries in the ledgers are now being entered on the database using the Queen Mary-Roundhouse Historic Accounts Software.To date (May 2005) all the accounts from the Bruges ledger, some 1,017 of them, containing 10,300 separate transactions have been entered on the database and work has begun on inputting information from the London ledger. Some clients had multiple accounts. Cecco di Tommaso and brothers of Venice, one of the correspondents or agents of the Borromei Bruges, had nine separate accounts, one of which runs to seven double entry folios with a turnover of over £flemish 17,000 0s 0d, roughly equal to £sterling 15,000 0s 0d.
By contrast, the account of Giovanni da Ferrara, a Franciscan friar, was for only £flemish 7 13s 6d, whilst the bank paid 3s to an innkeeper for an overnight stay by Rudolf of Germany, a courier who carried letters from Bruges to Italy. But it was not only account holders who used the bank's services or were involved in transactions.
Other individuals delivered money to be sent abroad or were paid the proceeds of bills of exchange. Payments in cash were made to a variety of people, usually for services rendered. Sometimes they are described as porters or carters but others are named. They range from employees, valletti or giovani of other merchants in Bruges, to couriers and post riders, moneychangers, brokers who arranged deals on commission, other merchants from Flanders and from other territories across Europe, notaries and innkeepers. So far an additional 800 names of such individuals have been gathered from the Bruges ledger, and it is likely that the London ledger will yield a similar number. Many can be identified, but others are likely to remain in obscurity. Who was Damixella nostra to whom payments were regularly made?
It is not simply a matter of creating a record for other scholars to use, however. Details of any transaction containing information about bills of exchange, exchange rates, or commodities and costs of trade can be entered on the database for analysis by the research team. Information from bills of exchange, for example, is entered in three different ways:
- to create a record
- to add the exchange rate from one currency to another to the database
- and to show where the money either came from or was being sent
in this case from Bruges to Venice, since the taker (who wrote the bill) was the Borromei bank, based in Bruges and the payors (who had to pay the money in Venice, after a stated period of time) were Cecco di Tommaso and brothers of Venice. From these details it is possible to show movements in exchange rates between various centres and flows of money between them.
The commodities and costs of trade can be entered and analysed in much the same way, even down to the wages paid to porters and the costs of anchorage and pilotage at Southampton. Now that all the information from the Bruges ledger for 1438 has been inputted, it is possible to calculate profits and losses for both the bank and its clients on a yearly, half-yearly or quarterly basis, to express movements in exchange rates through graphs, to identify the amount of credit the bank allowed clients, and to begin to explore in detail the commercial and financial relationship between Bruges, Antwerp, Middleburg and London, the main axis of English overseas trade in these years.
When work on the London ledger is completed then the accounts with the bank of about 180 London merchants will become available. It is already clear that they were used to paying each other through their bank accounts, with no coin changing hands; that they could both write and accept bills of exchange; and that Filippo Borromei & co. of London offered some of them extended credit, with balances being carried over from year to year. All three have considerable implications for current debates on the technical and accounting skills of English merchants and on the creation of paper money to alleviate shortages of gold and especially silver coins, or perhaps the bullion from which they were struck.
Conferences and the Publication of Conference Papers
A successful international conference on Banking, Credit and Finance in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, funded by the External Relations Department, was held at Queen Mary in September 2004. Speakers came from Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Spain and the United States, as well as from Great Britain. From it, one central theme emerged, that future research should focus much more on the important part played by international banks in the development of local banking, credit and trade networks in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. The Borromei ledgers provide ample evidence for the existence of such networks in north-western Europe and in 2006 Professor Bolton and Dr Guidi Bruscoli were asked to participate in a session on these topics at the XIV International Economic History Congress held in Helsinki in the August of that year. There respective papers were ‘London merchants and the Borromei bank in the 1430s: the role of local credit networks’ (Bolton) and ‘The settlement of Florentine companies in Bruges in the early fifteenth century: common strategies and different attitudes’ (Guidi Bruscoli). They also gave a joint paper to the joint Dutch-Flemish Economic History Conference in the November of the same year on the decline of Bruges and the rise of Antwerp in the fifteenth century. This paper has now been published, in a revised and extended version, as ‘When did Antwerp replace Bruges as the Commercial and Financial Centre of North-Western Europe? The Evidence of the Borromei Ledger for 1438’, Economic History Review, 2nd series, 2008. The papers from the Helsinki Conference were given again at a workshop held at the University of Antwerp in December 2007 and will be published in a book edited by J.M.Murray and P.Stabel, Tools of the Trade. The organization of international commerce in late-medieval Europe (forthcoming, 2009). In March 2004, Professor Bolton and Dr Guidi Bruscoli also gave a joint paper on the Borromei Bank Research Project at a conference held in Toronto entitled Money, Markets and Trade in Late Medieval Europe. An International Workshop in Honour of Professor J.H.A.Munro. This has now been published in the Festschrift marking the retirement of this distinguished Canadian scholar edited by L.Armstrong, I. Elbl and M.Elbl, Money, Markets and Trade in Late Medieval Europe (Boston and Leiden, 2007). Professor Bolton also gave a paper to The Fifteenth Century Conference held at Oxford in September 2006 on ‘How Sir Thomas Rempston paid his ransom: or, The mistakes of an Italian bank’ and this has now been published in L. Clark (ed.), The Fifteenth Century VII (Woodbridge, 2007). Dr Guidi Bruscoli also participated in a further workshop on Banking, Credit and Finance in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, this time held in Paris in December 2007 and organised by Professor Mathieu Arnoux and Dr Jacques Bottin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
Web Publication of the Ledgers
Thanks to a generous grant from The Westfield Trust, the Research Project was able to buy a server to host the ledger database. This allowed remote access to it, so that Dr Guide Broccoli could continue working on the ledgers from Florence, with Professor Bolton still based at Queen Mary. The server can also host a website and after considerable discussion it was decided that the best way forward would be by web publication rather than issuing the databases on CD-ROM. Further grants from the History Department and the Vice Principal for the Humanities enabled the development of more software from RoundHouse to create fully-searchable database versions of the ledgers. The Project’s website was launched in November 2007 and on the 30th of that month the History Department’s first web publication, The Ledger of Filippo Borromei & Company of Bruges, 1438, edited and calendared by J.L. Bolton and F. Guidi Bruscoli was launched.